Two prominent members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) say there is no historical basis to support claims by tribe leaders that a wind farm in Nantucket Sound would interfere with important cultural ceremonies based on the rising of the sun in the east. They say the claims are fiction.

Tribe member Jeffrey Madison, in a February 9 letter sent to Ken Salazar, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, supported by a statement signed by eight members of the tribe including Beverly Wright, a tribal council member and former five-term chairman of the tribe, disputed the tribe’s claim about the cultural value of the Cape Wind site.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, and Bettina Washington, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, have taken the lead in expressing the tribe’s opposition to Cape Wind on cultural and ceremonial grounds, in meetings with state and federal officials.

Federal law requires Cape Wind to consult with Native American tribes as part of the permitting process. Opposition of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s elected leadership to Cape Wind on cultural grounds has led to the direct involvement of Mr. Salazar, who has promised to resolve the issues by April.

“I believe it to be a fabrication, invented by a small number of tribal members who happen to be involved in tribal government and who happen to be opponents of Cape Wind who wish to derail the project,” Mr. Madison wrote. “I do not believe that they understand that creating ceremony to achieve political objectives undermines the credibility of our legitimate cultural values and our people as a whole.”

Layers beneath layers

Reached by telephone Monday, Mr. Madison declined to comment on the tribe and said the letter speaks for itself.

The context for Mr. Madison’s comments suggests the complex nature of tribal politics set against Cape Wind’s costly nine-year effort to construct a 130-turbine wind farm in Nantucket Sound.

A former tribal council member and Aquinnah selectman, Mr. Madison is a lawyer with the law firm of Wynn and Wynn. Cape Wind hired that Hyannis-based firm last month to assist in its push to overcome opposition to a wind farm. Robert Mills, another member of the firm, is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and a tribal court judge.

Mark Rodgers, Cape Wind spokesman, said, “We retained Wynn and Wynn to advise us on Indian affairs including the relevant federal statutes and to facilitate discussion of possible mitigation measures with the tribes.”

Mitigation took the form of a $1 million offer from the developer that tribal leaders refused, according to a member of the tribe.

Reached by telephone Tuesday and asked if Cape Wind had offered the Gay Head Wampanoag $1 million, Mr. Rodgers said, “There has been discussion of financial mitigation, that much I can say.”

Asked if there had been a corresponding mitigation offer to the Mashpee Wampanoags, Mr. Rogers said, “There has been a discussion there as well.”

In its written comments to Mr. Salazar Cape Wind cited consultation with tribal leaders since 2001, with no mention of cultural concerns until 2008. Cape Wind also quoted from Mr. Madison’s letter.

Culture as pawn

Mr. Madison has played many roles in tribe and town affairs and is intimately familiar with the tribe’s cultural life. As he writes in his letter, Mr. Madison’s father, Luther Madison, and grandfather, Napolean Madison, were lifelong medicine men of the tribe.

“I never participated in, witnessed, or even heard of a sacred spot on the horizon that is relevant to any Aquinnah Wampanoag culture, history, or ceremony,” Mr. Madison wrote.

Mr. Madison supports Cape Wind. Ms. Wright does not. Her objection is aesthetic, she told The Times in a telephone call Tuesday. But the former tribe chairman said she agrees with Mr. Madison. “I agree with what Jeffrey wrote because I do not think our culture should be held as a pawn for an end result,” she said.

Ms. Wright said it is possible that Wampanoags once walked on Horseshoe shoal thousands of years ago, but she said, “I do not think it is possible that it is a sacred site.”

Ms. Wright said the tribe’s general membership never voted a position regarding Cape Wind, and it should have the opportunity. She said that in July 2004, three members of the tribal council voted to oppose and four abstained. Ms. Wright said Ms. Maltais interprets that as a vote to oppose. “I do not,” she said.

The statement signed by Ms. Wright and seven others said, “We…while respecting our tribal representatives and their efforts on our behalf in protecting our cultural interests, do not agree that locating wind turbines in Nantucket Sound will materially interfere with any significant cultural activity.”

Mr. Salazar on the job

On February 2, Mr. Salazar traveled to the Cape and the Vineyard to meet with the Mashpee and Gay Head Wampanoag tribes, both of which oppose the Cape Wind project, and to tour the site of the proposed wind farm on Horseshoe Shoals in Nantucket Sound.

The permitting process appeared to be moving to a seeming conclusion when last year leaders of the Wampanoag tribes claimed that the wind farm would interfere with their view of the rising sun, an important element in tribal ceremonies, they said. And the wind farm will be built on a shoal that was dry land thousands of years ago and remains a sacred burial and cultural site.

Their opposition gained traction in January when the National Park Service announced that Nantucket Sound is eligible to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, due to its significance as a “traditional cultural property and as an historic and archeological property.” It was the first time such a designation had been applied to a body of water.

Yesterday, Ms. Maltais responded to a request for comment on Mr. Madison’s letter and the Cape Wind mitigation offer with an email in which she said that she and Ms. Washington were working against some hard deadlines and must put all of their energies into the Cape Wind industrial park wind farm issue. Ms. Maltais said that if possible she would provide a comment prior to the Times’ deadline.

The Times did not receive a comment.

The Times was also unsuccessful in contacting Mashpee Wampanoag leaders for comment.

by Nelson Sigelman
Published: February 25, 2010